#26: An Opinion – Cairns on the up? Maybe

The winds of change

gather momentum.

Seaward fronds

bristling in the breeze,

leave all trace

of yesterdays behind them.

When cyclone winds

arrive in tandem.

– Hans Lee-

There is a lot to say about change in our part of the world, it happens when we least expect it but faster then we would have otherwise anticipated. It’s the curse of the orchestrated laissez faire lifestyle we enjoy in the Far North Queensland.

Though little doubt can now be cast upon our little city in the north that the winds of change are blowing again. Some may even argue at gale force.

There is just that much happening around Cairns that anyone who wishes for the past would be sourly disappointed that Cairns is growing up fast. Images of the once thriving fishing port are a distant memory as we continuously (re)define ourselves as an eco-tourism friendly region – or perhaps something more.

Flurry of Optimism

To set the context on where we are now, I refer to a piece by TropicNow that brought to my attention a mountain of reasons to be excited about the Cairns economy in 2017. Not least among them was the contribution of the low Australian dollar contributing favourably towards our tourism industry.

It was encouraging to see that the optimism that had been slow to build was now gaining traction as nervous fits from investors gave way to bold commitments.

In a zealous show of confidence, we saw the GA Group, headed by Syrian-born entrepreneur Mr Ghassan Aboud, place trust in our regional economy to a staggering mark of$370 million. Whilst being met with some scathing remarks by community backbenchers, it was a much-needed reprieve from the hype around the other proposed development at Yorkeys Knob, which we can all agree was divisive at best.

Its commencement was, no-doubt, a noteworthy earmark for major private-led developments in the Cairns CBD, but I’d be mistaken to suggest it was the only litmus test indicating confidence in our regional city.

Post-GFC optimism drove the Lancini Group to steer their property investments towards Cairns, erecting the Cairns Homemaker Centre on the corner of Kenny and Draper Street well before confidence became flavour of the month again. Bunnings Warehouse followed suite with the 2015 opening of its 16,000 square-meter Draper Street warehouse.

In that same year, Central Queensland University announced that it would open up a satellite campus in the iconic Cairns Square offering full bachelor and post-graduate degrees including nursing and engineering degrees. Not to be outdone, James Cook University too declared a well over-due move into the heart of the Cairns CBD, taking up prime real estate in a new state of the art facility on Shields Street.

Like the rainforest after the first wet season rains, the city was starting to bustle with life inside and outside the heart of the city.

The new Smithfield cinema and the opening up of a boutique brewer in Smithfield were personal reasons to celebrate. No doubt buoyed by the filling out of the Northern Beach suburbs in recent years, the numbers are at last adding up to justify these lifestyle amenities.

We can see similar trends promised for the southern suburbs too as they too fill out with the continued residential developments expanding Edmonton and Mount Peter.

Start with the Heart

But it does start with the CBD so I should also emphasise too the public infrastructure projects that continue to reinvigorate our community. The $23 million upgrade to the Torbuk Pool has been utilised by a wide group of locals and international groups for leisure and training.

Munro Martin Park’s $10 million upgrade has already been used to host notable acts for the city including the chart topper Passenger, Kate Miller-Heidke and The Waifs as well as the Queensland Opera’s Barber of Seville. Let us not forget too the ongoing construction work on the new $76.5 million Cairns Civic Theatre set to cater to the more nuanced contemporary culture in our city. Then there’s the Shields Street Revitalisation that is gradually transforming the heart of the CBD into a modern streetscape fit for a maturing city.

I’ll also mention the soon to be completed Cairns Aquarium that seems to have Townsville already going on the offensive. Well I only have one remark to make about that and it sounds a little bit like harden-up mixed in with a little bit of not-my-problem. Sorry Not Sorry. There is little doubt that the aquarium will be a true attraction for the city showcasing and educating about the Great Barrier Reef.

Cairns has found an admirable balance between private and public expenditure in the city that will only add to the cities transformation from the sleepy fishing town to a bustling regional city.

The Cairns Way- Putting People at the Heart

But as an urbanist, I am always weary that it is more then just the buildings and roads that make a space a place. I’d always put it down to the people, the community, and the mix of cultures that create the energy the city feeds off. If anyone was lucky enough to attend Cairns-based artist Pricilla Ong’s exhibition at the Tanks in May, you would soon realise how vast the Cairns community was, but, more so how different the new-Cairns looked from the older Cairns.

Attracted by opportunities for employment, education, and our lifestyle, Cairns diversity has been a reoccurring theme throughout its 140-year history. Cairns has always been culturally tiered township starting with its mixed communities in the old Malay Town through to the once thriving China town on what is present day Grafton Street. The two Gurdwara temples in South Cairns are further remnants worth noting too of the presence of a long time Sikh community. Then came the Europeans, then the Pacific Islanders and then every one else, and despite our differences, Cairns seamlessly weaves our stories together to form the fabric of our community.

Increasingly popular events like the Chinese New Year Festival, Cairns Indigenous Arts Festival (CIAF), the Cairns Multicultural Festival, and the encompassing Cairns Festival allude to this mutual respect and appreciation for our cultural diversity- we call the Cairns way. Pop into Rusty’s market on a Friday or Saturday morning and you might just see it.

Then there are the calendar events we have managed to build a subculture for – the Cairns Ironman Festival. Now I can’t remember the time when I didn’t know a triathlete. It fascinates me how fast Cairns has taken a shine to that sport, and if the number of bicycle shops are any indication of it’s growing popularity, it’s not going away anytime soon. Any culture or subculture finds a space to thrive in Cairns.

The People

I’d be remiss to also forget the people who build on our uniqueness, taking our creativity to the world. At the helm of this movement is TheSpace, a start up incubator founded by Troy Haines and Damien Zammit, two passionate entrepreneurs whose purpose to encourage, nurture, and grow other entrepreneurs and their startups. In recognition of their efforts, the state government recently nominated TheSpace to become the regional partner for the corporate business accelerator Slingshot to assist local entrepreneurs as part of the Advance Queensland funding package.

Cairns is no longer just a home to the kick-about types who put up Gone Fishin’ signs from 8am – 4pm and invoice clients for a fair days work. It’s quickly becoming a place that appeals to loaded-barrel entrepreneurs who are firing with exciting and cutting-edge solutions for clients regionally, nationally and internationally.

One such entrepreneur whose story is at the crux of the changing culture of Cairns is Mr Benjamin Farkas of Think Virtual Reality, a local with an enviable passion for mixed reality technologies bringing an edge to businesses in the region. Already engaged with high-level projects at the state level, only time will prove him to be one of our most prized assets.

Though, it is not always about the profit.

A personal heroine of mine, Kate Fern, the 2017 Cairns Woman of the year, readily demonstrates the importance of entrepreneurship for social change and the benefit of the community. Year on year, she tirelessly organises fundraising drives for the FNQ Hospital Foundation through the not-for-profit organisation Power-Of-Pallets amongst other things.

There are many more entrepreneur-types putting our regional creativity on the map. We rarely get to celebrate every win that comes our way but we must also come to realise that the game is changing. It is going to get harder to win but the great news is that we have the creative ability to solve that problem.

The Creativity

Local homebuilders Allaro Homes recently took the technology scene by storm being recognised for their creative use of VR technology to assist their business processes.

While this does represent a cool industry adapted application of technology, I would go so far as to argue that Allaro Homes recognition hints at the future of business competition on a level we have never seen before. At the core of their success was the availability and access to key technical knowledge providers to help them develop their VR technology.

Developing knowledge from the region to be recognised at a state-level demonstrates the potential benefits and impacts of the technology induced time and space compression.

The fact that we do not need to be located in Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne, or Perth to develop newfound knowledge leverages regions onto an equally competitive playing field with larger cities – traditional hotbeds of the knowledge bearing creative class, according to one Richard Florida.

A term I fully disagree with and will hereby refer to as the knowledge-makers1. But I digress.

Knowledge Making For Survival

The only limitation to how effective Cairns, and the region, are on this playing field depends then not only on how good we are at marketing ourselves to investment, but on how we can firstly, attract and retain knowledge-makers and secondly, how we could develop application-ready knowledge.

A lesson in hope, we have already started to take steps in this direction, whether consciously or not remain open to interpretation. JCU’s 2014 State of the Tropics report affirmed its strategic focus on emerging tropical economies as a key market for to further understand and create knowledge for.

Following this, JCU’s timely investment savvy attitude is further placing our region at the right end of the field with a new Internet of Things degree and innovation lab to complement. Having two universities as well as a Tafe in the city provides critical infrastructure for the knowledge to be created, captured and tested.

It took me a long time to realise the potential of all these networks bubbling under the surface of a currently booming economy.

But a word of warning was sounded at the end of 2016 that caught my attention and prompted me to look deeper into Cairns.

Mr Luckbir Singh, a senior Cairns lawyer and legal partner, had just been appointed the new chair of Chamber of Commerce and Industry Queensland (CCIQ) Far Northern Policy Council. In his address, Mr Singh called for a “future-focused identity” where he advocated for a call to orient policy dialogue around a Smart Region and beyond the smart city. Mr Singh advocated for the region to look at the knowledge economy to prepare us for a more sustainable future.

I could not agree more with Mr Singh, but I did not know at the time what to make of it. Like many I had developed a cautious optimism in the region buoyed by the low Australian dollar and a booming local tourism industry.

When the times are good, we worship at the altar of the reef and the rainforest, praising tourism for its bountiful provisions. But anyone who has been here before would know that this too shall pass.

We have the resources, the people – the knowlege-makers, the entrepreneurs and the pillars of the infrastructure to make the push towards an alternative model for our survival. I am not saying that a tourism-focus is inherently bad for business as usual, but business as usual should also consider alternative business models for survival.

——– Hans Lee (2017)

I I do not use the term creative class as it presupposes tertiary education and an occupation or profession as a requisite to have knowledge. Creative Class as a terminology does not imply that these people have the ability to convert learned knowledge into entrepreneurial ventures. The term is clarified by Richard Florida as being devised to give researchers and economic policy makers the ability to identify and categorise occupational categories including Science and Engineering, Arts and Culture, Business and Management, Medicine and Education. In effect it excludes people like Mark Zuckerburg, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, who never completed tertiary studies. I would rather use the term knowledge-makers opening up the scope of the definition to include those who contribute to the knowledge pool but have never been formally educated let alone having attained tertiary education.

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